Upskilling for the digital age
The digital revolution is changing the way companies run and affecting the roles of auditors, accountants, and other financial professionals and how they are fulfilling their roles, according to Lauren Berrington, chief audit executive of South Africa-based The Bidvest Group. Berrington spoke Wednesday at the CGMA Africa Conference 2019: Finance Transformation in the Digital World in Cape Town.
One of the key benefits of deploying technology in the workspace, she said in a pre-conference interview, is its ability to take away mundane tasks from financial professionals, allowing them to focus on more important and value-added responsibilities. “On the audit side of finance, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are taking on the routine and repetitive tasks, allowing auditors to spend more time on areas of elevated risks,” she said.
This is where skills surrounding communication and problem-solving are becoming increasingly important. These skills include the ability to think critically about data produced by bots and to analyse, evaluate, and communicate this information clearly to management and others within the organisation. Other skills include being able to judge the data you have at your disposal and add a layer of interpretation and context — and then build this intelligence into your bot and train it accordingly.
Being creative, for instance when communicating this information to others to ensure the information is understood and sticks, is important, too. “This is where you as a financial professional can play a more exciting role. Those types of skills will become more important in the world of finance.”
A good example is ALICE. This audit robot, developed by Berrington and her team, conducts audits through cognitive automation, machine learning, robotics, and AI across the company’s many IT environments.
“We decided to digitalise and automate our internal auditing service by taking the human element out of the auditing processes,” said Berrington, whose presentation largely revolved around the idea behind ALICE as well as its conceptualisation, development, and rollout. This wasn’t an easy task, seeing that Bidvest Group is a company with 130,000 employees and many legal and operating entities, each with separate IT environments.
“From conceptualisation, it took us about a year and a half to implement ALICE,” said Berrington, who added that the project started about three years ago. Besides a healthy set of soft skills, financial professionals are urged to develop and enhance an essential tech skillset, Berrington added. This doesn’t necessarily mean one has to become a coding or programming expert, although that would be exponentially helpful.
“It is more about having the right knowledge and being able to understand how the technology works — in order to be able to make decisions surrounding how it can be applied to areas of challenges or opportunities,” she explained. “Take the cloud for instance. What is it? What does it do? How can it help my business? How does it change the working environment? How can I implement AI?”
Using technology for the sake of it is not really helpful. Finding a solution to a business problem is imperative — and if technology is an enabler of that solution — great! Deep knowledge about these enabling technologies allows financial professionals to shape the solution outcomes. These soft tech skills are particularly important for established financial professionals who have been in the field for a while and seek to remain relevant.
Whilst machines are taking over more routine and repetitive financial tasks within organisations, and problem-solving and communication skills are becoming more important, financial professionals must remain in touch with the basics of their field at all times.
“You need to understand the fundamentals of finance, even if a bot is doing it for you,” Berrington said. “You still need to know the fundamentals to interpret the results provided by a bot and make the right financial decisions.”
— Miriam Mannak is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.